Space, like hope, springs eternal, which is probably why fans of space sims have suffered for so long. Once a dominant genre, space sims come few and far between now, and the glory days of games such as Wing Commander and TIE Fighter are ancient history. So enter Spaceforce: Rogue Universe from Dreamcatcher and Provox Games, a space sim that blends role-playing with the open-ended type of exploration reminiscent of Elite. It makes for a compelling package, but it suffers from some inexplicable problems.
There are actually two games in Spaceforce. The first is a story-driven campaign that lets you fly around a galaxy in pursuit of vengeance for your family, while the second is a free-form, open-ended role-playing game that ditches the story completely, lets you create your own character from different races and classes, and lets you fly around the galaxy and pursue the more than 2,000 side quests on your own. That's enough content to keep most space fans busy for a good, long while--or at least until the next space sim is released in a year or two.
Like any good space sim, the heart of Spaceforce is your ship, a fighter that you can exchange and upgrade any number of ways. As usual, you can upgrade your ship by buying and installing more powerful weapons and components, but you can also boost various components of your ship so long as you have cash to pay for the upgrades. You get cash for these upgrades by flying missions, which can be picked up at any space station. Invariably, these missions require you to go out and blast the heck out of someone or something, and their pace, as well as the sheer number of available missions, means that you'll be busy as you zip around space.
Thankfully, even though the game is set in a fairly open galaxy full of star systems, it's easy to get around. You can go into mega speed mode by switching the camera to outside of your ship, which lets you shorten travel time as you fly across systems. Meanwhile, a helpful jump system usually lets you warp straight to a space station or a dimensional gate, which lets you travel from system to system. There's a lot to see and explore in each system, as you can discover and interact with different civilizations and explore previously uncharted territory.
Surprisingly, it's the little things that Spaceforce really stumbles with. For instance, the lack of a tutorial is frustrating, as you're thrown into the opening mission with no idea how to accomplish your objectives. Scanning the list of controls in the options menu is no help, so you have to rely on trial and error to figure things out. That's indicative of most of the game; there's not a lot of explanation to the various aspects and features at your command. The lack of a coherent save and load system also hurts Spaceforce, as it's easy to lose hours of progress if you're fiddling around with your profile.
In addition to the learning curve, Spaceforce features a tough difficulty curve. The default medium difficulty level will likely fluster you, as opponents are downright brutal. Things get more manageable at the easier difficulty level, though the game still isn't quite a pushover. Combat revolves around the usual turn-and-burn dogfighting seen in almost every space game, though in Spaceforce trying to shoot down a bogey can be as tedious as pulling teeth. If you're short of missiles, you'll have to rely on guns, and whittling down an opponent's shields and hull can make for some of the longest dogfights you'll ever likely participate in. Oh, and you'll most definitely want to get a joystick, because even though you can play with a mouse and keyboard, there's so much yawing around that you're basically handicapping yourself with the mouse. Unfortunately, we noted an odd bug with a joystick: The throttle was always stuck to full, regardless of how much calibration we did. We also noted some crash issues at certain points of the game.
Spaceforce does earn kudos for some of the prettiest space combat action seen in a while, as the empty void is anything but boring. There's usually a beautiful planet to behold, strange anomalies to encounter, and the hulks of dead space stations to gaze at. Meanwhile, the ship designs range from sleek to appropriately alien and exotic. Perhaps the one thing that the game captures better than any space game before it is lightning, particularly when you're trying to dogfight an opponent who's hiding against the blinding light of a star, making you momentarily lose track of him. It's a tactic used by real-world fighter pilots to this day, and it adds to the challenge and cinematic nature of the combat. If only the sound effects were as impressive. You have only the standard array of whooshing noises and such, along with lame cockpit voice chatter as you listen to bad guys try to trash talk you.
If you can get past the steep learning and difficulty curves, there's a pretty deep game to unearth. The combat in Spaceforce is challenging, the stuff to do is interesting, and the pace of the game rarely drags.